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Interview: Blake Lewin on Launching GameTap

June 22, 2005
 

The GameTap "Game Vault", where users can pick which game they want to play.

Blake Lewin's business card, upon first glance, does not telegraph Lewin's involvement in the games industry. At the top, an embossed ovoid "Turner" logo stretches across some black pinstripes, and underneath that are listed some of the company's most popular offerings: CNN, TNT, TBS, TCM, Cartoon Network, and the Atlanta Braves. But if this vice president of new product development and innovations has his way, the Braves will not be the only seemingly incongruous product on Turner business cards. This fall, Lewin and Turner will be launching GameTap, the world's first gaming syndication network.

But Lewin hopes that the service will change more than just Turner's business cards. A successful GameTap, Lewin says, will change the way publishers and developers do business. Grandiose claims, for sure, but to hear Blake tell it, it's something that had to happen eventually.

GameTap grew out of Lewin's long history with interactive entertainment. Back in the early '90s, Blake was working as a music licensor in Hollywood, bringing tunes into films like Thelma and Louise. But after reading about CD-ROMs and how they offered a revolutionary new form of entertainment, Lewin jumped ship and ran with the interactive movie bandwagon.

And as we all know, those interactive ventures didn't pan out, and Lewin ended up working at Turner Broadcasting Systems. Things have been rather fluid for Lewin since then: in 1996 Time Warner scooped up Turner. In 2000, America Online joined the fray. Lewin says that he has had 16 bosses in 10 years.

As an interesting side note, AOL originally grew out of a company called Control Video. The company created a service called Gameline that offered subscribers the chance to plug a modem into their Atari 2600 and download games over their phone line. In 1983 the company closed in on bankruptcy, and a young marketing executive named Steve Case became CEO. The rest, as they say, is history.

But the constant fluctuations above Lewin haven't slowed down the progress of his brainchild, GameTap. After getting his initial budget for the project in 2002, Blake has pushed the product forward relentlessly. He began courting publishers in 2003, and was pleasantly surprised with how well most companies received his proposals.

"I really expected having to do a lot of song and dance, a lot of explanations," says Lewin. "We went in and explained 'why Turner?', because that was the first thing on their minds: well why is it Turner, why are you guys doing this stuff? But really what it is, if you look at Turner's history, we are about aggregating content and creating branded networks. We went and got the Hanna Barbara library and created Cartoon Network. We got the MGM library and created Turner Classic Movies, TNT is all about drama, TBS is about aggregating funny shows and movies. So it really wasn't that big of a step for us to say, 'well with broadband coming up what type of a network would we look at to produce?' And games was the obvious answer. 40 percent of all U.S. households have a game console connected to their television. They're definitely not watching our network when they're playing games, so we wanted to enter that space!"

"The idea was to go to the publishers and say, 'hey look, you have this back catalog sitting here, just like the film studios did back in the '50s and '60s when TV came along,'" says Lewin. "So what we wanna do is license these catalogs, and create this network in the same way we created Cartoon Network or TCM. They were very amenable to that.
And they saw even faster than we did the promotional opportunities that they would have if we're successful. Not only are we licensing games from them, but we're creating a channel that will help keep their brands alive."


"Bonus Material" features include original commercials, such as this one for Pitfall.

"Using cartoons as an example, when we bought Hanna Barbara, Scooby Doo was a very dormant franchise. But through Cartoon Network, we've reinvigorated Scooby Doo, and now Warner Brothers has released two major motion pictures around Scooby Doo. [The] same thing will happen with games. We will reinvigorate franchises that have become dormant, and give the publishers opportunities to create new versions of them."

"The other comparison that we made with the publishers was, everybody is making the analogy that there's $10 billion in the box office, and there's $10 billion in the games industry. However, that $10 billion in box office is only 24 percent of what a film makes. The other 76 percent is in DVD, pay-per-view, and then network and cable syndication. So GameTap is creating that game syndication model. So we're not going to have the most current games, but we'll have games as they move out of retail, just as movies move out of box office, and they'll show up on our network."

The first company Turner approached was Sega. In 1994 Sega teamed up with Time Warner to launch the Sega Channel, a cable-based game subscription service, so it was only natural that GameTap start with Sega. History may not always repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme.

"Sega was a great opportunity for us," says Lewin. "I had personally been influenced by the Sega Channel years ago; I think it was a great idea, and it was way ahead of its time. So with Sega, they were one of the first publishers we wanted to approach because of their history of innovation. [We said] If anybody's gonna get it, Sega's gonna get it, which they did, and they've been very very supportive." Indeed, most of the GameTap publicity materials have featured numerous Sega titles, ranging from Virtua Fighter, to Dynamite Headdy through Gunstar Heroes. Other initially announced licensees include Activision, Atari, Eidos Interactive, Intellivision Lives, Midway, Namco, Sega, Taito, Team 17, Ubisoft and Vivendi Universal Games.

"Turner does not know the games industry," says Lewin. Therefore, they're seen as an outside, a neutral third party that won't intrude on the aspirations of established gaming giants.

"Obviously we're no threat in terms of competing with their existing business," says Lewin. "We have a long history of being able to aggregate content, and create very compelling networks, and aggregate a bunch of eyeballs around our networks. So again, the publishers saw that as an opportunity too, of growing a more mainstream audience around games."

For the first time, players will get the opportunity to play their favorite classic titles legitimately, rather than having to download ROMs and run quasi-legal emulation tools.

"In addition to hiring a fantastic team of content people," says Lewin, "we've also, over the last two years, collected a nice 'who's who' list of emulation experts. We've licensed a lot of code, and we've written some ourselves. The Sega Dreamcast [emulator] is our own, we'll have our own Saturn [emulator].

"It's certainly [created] a lot of legal challenges, but the great thing about being a part of Time Warner is we're not short on lawyers. [laughs] So we spent a lot of due diligence making sure that everything is done clean room.... that we're very very clean in how we approach the emulators. I mean, it's been a long list of due diligence on this. And at the same time, we also see this as a win-win, we're not going out there to make enemies."

Lewin even expects to see future game contracts take syndication rights into account. Developers will soon have to address re-distribution rights, he says, so that in the future, just as movie producers negotiate for television syndication rights, game developers will have to consider syndication when negotiating with publishers. If done right, game syndication will be a way for aging developers to continue earning from their products.

Lewin's team is also trying to dig up these grey-haired veteran developers. He hopes to make GameTap listings like the DVD edition of a movie: they'll include commercials, documentaries, design sketches, and any other cool ephemera they can get ahold of. He demonstrated this for us on a laptop he'd brought to the interview.

"When you go to pick a game," said Lewin, mousing around the oversized Toshiba notebook, "you go to the info card about that game. We'll have our own descriptions, screenshots, we are writing our own 'how to plays' as well as adding tips... We're adding bonus material. So if we go to Pitfall and look at the bonus material, we're working with the publishers to get original production art and old commercials. We're producing our own behind the scenes videos, so in this instance we've got the history of Pitfall, which is a short two to three minute piece that we produced [by] interviewing David Crane, where we talk about what his idea was and how he came up with Pitfall Harry."

All this content requires a team to create it, and Turner's experience with linear information delivery is clearly being tapped.

"We've hired a tremendous content development staff," says Lewin. "My knowledge of games is dwarfed in comparison to these guys, who have played every single game on the service. One of the guys we hired owned over 400 Sega Dreamcast games personally. I didn't even know there were that many Sega Dreamcast games! [laughs] We're also spending time, through our relationships with the publishers to go out and find the original developers and interview them. It really gives us an opportunity to not only get the games as an entertainment type, but also to get behind the scenes and pull some of the history and great stories that exist.

"We're also combining the linear nature of what we've done in the past with the on-demand nature of the vault," says Lewin. "If you don't know what you want, after a while with on-demand... you kinda get overwhelmed, especially when we're adding hundreds and hundreds of games. So we've built this linear channel and while we've licensed close to a thousand games so far, what we're doing is we're launching with 300, and then we're rolling out 5 to 10 games every week as if they were episodes of TV shows, and with that, we're building the promotional material around it. In this example, Pitfall's released this week. That Pitfall video you saw will start off here [on the main screen]. For coming soon, I told you that Myst was one of my favorite games. So we're gonna launch Myst: We would launch that like we would launch a network premiere movie, so there'd be the buildup there'd be the promos around it. And again that creates a linear aspect to the on-demand nature of the vault."


The "Game Description" window includes tabs for "How to Play," "Bonus Materials," and "Parental Controls.".

Where does this all go in five years? "Well, I can say that the way Turner views this is that GameTap is a network," says Lewin. "The goal is to create a branded network around games that can then be distributed on many many platforms. We're looking at mobile, we're looking at set-top boxes, and other types of platforms." As he says set-top boxes, Blake almost instinctively lowers his voice and leans in; after his experiences in interactive entertainment in the mid '90s, its understandable that he may be somewhat apprehensive about the phrase "set-top box." But it's clear that GameTap will eventually be moving off of computer monitors and onto televisions, right at home, with Adult Swim and CNN Headline News sitting just a channel away.

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